My Brilliant Friend is the first part of a trilogy about Elena Greco and her friend Lila Cerullo. The novel begins when Elena and Lila are sixty-six and Rino, Lila’s son, telephones Elena to say his mother has been missing for two weeks.
"It’s been at least three decades since she told me that she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace, and I’m the only one who knows what she means. She never had in mind any sort of flight, a change of identity, the dream of making a new life somewhere else. And she never thought of suicide…She meant something different: she wanted to vanish; she wanted every one of her cells to disappear, nothing of her ever to be found."
This attempt ‘to eliminate the entire life that she had left behind’ angers Elena and she begins to write their story. My Brilliant Friend covers their childhood and adolescence.
"Lila appeared in my life in first grade and immediately impressed me because she was very bad. In that class we were all a little bad, but only when the teacher, Maestra Oliviero, couldn’t see us. Lila, on the other hand, was always bad."
So bad that it appears as though Lila might have killed Maestra Oliviero as she stumbles and hits her head on the corner of a desk. It’s the first indication of how dark and threaded with violence this story is to be.
"We lived in a world in which children and adults were often wounded, blood flowed from the wounds, they festered, and sometimes people died."
Although this is a followed by a list of physical injuries and deaths, it becomes clear as the novel progresses that Ferrante means this metaphorically too; the town seems to thrive on rivalry and feuds. These escalate when Don Achille, grocer and ‘an ogre of fairy tales..’ who provokes ‘…a fear and hatred whose origin I didn’t know’ is murdered by Silvio Solara, owner of the bar-pastry shop. The violence perpetrated by the fathers spills over to the children and affects both girls as they grow up, particularly through their relationships with the local boys.
The other main thread in the book stems from the violence Lila perpetrates in the classroom. It’s quickly revealed that her disobedience stems from boredom – Lila can already read and write. Her older brother claims she learned sitting next to him while he did his homework. Elena disputes this, suggesting that the teasing he suffered from the local girls due to ‘…the odor of dirty feet, of old uppers, of glue…’ that lingered on him from working in their father’s shoe repair shop led to him making the claim. It was more likely Lila leant from the newspapers customers wrapped their shoes in. This sets her apart from the rest of the family who are poor and lack education. It is also a catalyst for Elena:
"I decided that I had to model myself on that girl, never let her out of my sight, even if she got annoyed and chased me away."
Eventually, however, education is the thing that will separate the two of them and influence their relationship choices.
In My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante covers themes of politics, class/money, feminism and relationships but does so without ever taking from the core of the novel, the coming-of-age story of two girls. The neighbourhood feuds and the juxtaposition of Lila and Elena – one which slowly moves until it seems that their positions have almost entirely reversed – make this a compelling novel.
I’ve said before that I think you know you’ve read a great book when you’re desperate to read it again, confident that it has more to yield. The re-reading of My Brilliant Friend will have to wait for now, however, as it ends on such a superb, subtle cliff-hanger that I need to start part two, The Story of a New Name imminently.